Michael Moline, Author at Florida Politics - Page 6 of 42

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

Jack Latvala gets into it with Jeff Brandes over economics incentives bill

The Senate sent the VISIT Florida and Enterprise Florida budget cuts to the Governor Monday on a 29-8 vote, but not before Sen. Jack Latvala, who has supported Gov. Rick Scott on economic incentives, took the opportunity to nitpick.

The House approved the measure earlier in the day.

Latvala started with HB 5501’s formal name: Displaced Homemakers. Among its many provisions, the bill would fold a jobs program for them into standard programs within the Department of Economic Opportunity.

“You know we have a single-subject rule in the Constitution. Could you explain the nexus between displaced homemakers and Visit Florida?” Latvala demanded.

“It’s a good question,” conceded Sen. Jeff Brandes, who presented the bill.

“You’re darned right it’s a good question,” Latvala said.

Brandes: “I’m not here to argue titles with you. I didn’t select the title for this.”

Latvala: “But it’s still titled that.”

Brandes: “That’s correct.”

Latvala: “What do you think the possibility that would have made it into conference … if it had been titled Visit Florida or Enterprise Florida?

Brandes: “Sen. Latvala, I’m not here to have that debate with you. I’m here to present HB 5501 — which we brought up, we stripped everything out of, we put into conference, and that conference committee decided to place these provisions before this body.”

Latvala: “But you cannot make a nexus between displaced homemakers and Visit Florida. You can’t even try.”

Brandes: “Oh, I can try. But I’m not here to make a rational nexus, nor am I here to argue that point.”

Later, Latvala noted that the bill doesn’t allow anyone at Enterprise Florida or Visit Florida to earn more than the salary and benefits paid to the governor.

“It doesn’t say ‘authorized,’ it says ‘paid.’ In the situation where we now have a governor who has not taken a salary, how are we going to determine the compensation for the chief executive of Visit Florida?” Latvala asked.

“Well, they would be the benefits and salary paid to the governor,” Brandes said.

“I don’t know all of his benefits, and I don’t know all of his salary situation. But, evidently, the conference committee believed that was the appropriate dollar amount to use,” he said.

Education bill, key to budget deal, clears the Senate by two votes

Only one of the budget conforming bills debated in the Senate Monday drew a point of order — SB 7069, to implement the House’s ideas about charter schools and teacher bonuses.

It didn’t stop the bill from passing, on a vote of 20-18.

House and Senate negotiators have paired the bill with separate legislation carrying the Senate’s higher education agenda.

Sen. Gary Farmer raised the point of order, arguing that the education compromise violated multiple Senate rules. For example, he argued, it contained non-germane amendments; was considered in conference absent a roll call or quorum; and that the language wasn’t settled until hours following the conference committee.

Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benaquisto ruled against Farmer on all grounds, saying conference reports deserve more latitude than ordinary legislation.

“The conference report is a special case because the bill has been through all of its readings in both chambers, and comes to us, not on the part of a single senator, but as a product of a committee appointed to provide a solution to an impasse between the chambers,” she said.

In debate on the merits, Farmer denounced the package as “a piece of junk” and “a monstrosity.”

“The things that are in there and are not in there, combined, will without a doubt hurt our traditional public schools. They will hasten the privatization of public education,” he said.

“We’ve tried privatization in a number of different fields — prisons come to mind. It hasn’t really worked out all that well,” Farmer said.

The deal would provide $140 million for a Schools of Hope program, to lure charter schools to replace failing public schools, and $234 million for the Best and Brightest bonuses for high-achieving teachers and principals.

The Senate would get language requiring state universities to charge students per semester, so they could load up on courses and perhaps graduate sooner. There would be no tuition increases, but there would be increases in aid and scholarships.

In all, the measure changes 20 substantive areas of law.

Senators voiced concern throughout the broader debate Monday about the conference process. In this case, the Senate side saw the final House language around 7 p.m. Thursday, Senate negotiator David Simmons said.

He and staffers pored over it until 12:30 a.m. Friday, before the final conference by House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron.

Sen. Tom Lee wanted to know: Did Simmons doubt the House’s good faith?

“I do not question at all their good faith. As a matter of fact, I applaud their excellent idea. I just think that it’s exceedingly difficult to be able to implement this,” Simmons said.

“There are some good things in this bill. But couldn’t we have hammered out more reasonable solutions that would have been kinder to our public school partners, and maybe not allowed the House to determine this great change in public policy?” Republican Doug Broxon asked.

“Each of us will have to make his or her own decision about this. Even the proponents in the House have acknowledged that there are problems … regarding implementation,” Simmons said.

For example, as many as 25 out of 200 struggling public schools could apply for extra money to run “wrap-around” services intended to help children overcome social problems, but would have two years to show progress. New charter schools would get five years, he said.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo suggested a lot of misinformation is circulating about the bill. “Some of the policy issues you may or may not agree with, but it is not a piece of junk,” she said.

Democrat Lauren Book objected to sharing public school capital investment money and federal Title I money for disadvantaged students with charters.

“Very little of this is new,” Sen. Bill Montford said — rather, it contains a litany of proposals long rejected by the Senate. And charter operators once promised they never would seek capital money, he said.

“There’s a lot of good things in this bill. But there’s a lot of things that will have a detrimental impact on the districts this year,” Montford said.

Area lawmakers, Dozier survivor pitch Pasco forensics lab to Rick Scott

Legislators from Pasco County urged Gov. Rick Scott Monday to approve legislation authorizing construction of a $4.3 million criminal forensics laboratory there that would attack the state’s 16,000-case backlog of unsolved murders.

“This is not about Pasco County. This is about the entire state,” Sen. Wilton Simpson said. The project would “greatly expand law enforcement’s ability as it relates to terrorism and as it relates to cold cases,” he said.

“This project is going to change lives, and it’s going to provide so much closure to those who have been suffering so long without it,” Rep. Danny Burgess said.

Part of the inspiration for the program was the investigation into abuses at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

Erin Kimmerle, whose Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science at the University of South Florida helped uncover much of that history, will help run the new center.

The center would be one of seven such facilities in the nation, and would conduct investigations and train law enforcement officers and students. It would be named after Thomas Varnadoe, who died in Dozier at age 13 in 1934.

“What the Dozier example shows is is that time isn’t our greatest challenge — it’s capacity and will,” Kimmerle said.

“Sixteen thousand cases — if you solve 50 of those, that may seem like so little,” said Robert Straley, a Dozier survivor. “But to the families that are going through this … something like this will help immensely.”

Jeff Peake, a major in the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, said the facility would provide research, forensic services and “cutting-edge” training for investigating murders and terrorist attacks.

Beyond that, “this facility will allow answers — long-awaiting answers — for the family members of cold-case victims throughout the state of Florida,” Peake added.

This is probably the biggest thing the Legislature has done for law enforcement in my recollection,” former Pasco Sheriff Bob White said.

“You go to a murder scene, the first people you want to see are your crime scene techs. Well, this facility, Dr. Kimberly and her team, will have the ability to provide premium training — world-wide training — to all of our crime scene techs in the state of Florida,” he said.

Jack Latvala appeals to Senate to pass budget, despite flawed process

Don’t let the perhaps flawed way that House and Senate negotiators agreed upon their $83 billion state budget tarnish the final bill, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala urged Monday as the Senate took up the measure in an extended session.

“We’ve done a lot of good with this budget” and “cannot get bogged down just worrying about one issue and forget all of the many accomplishments that we’ve had together this year,” he said.

“If there’s fault to be had for one of these bills that has gotten a little bit out of control, just understand that we won’t do this again under my watch on this committee. I promise you that,” Latvala said.

The process mostly worked as designed, he contended.

“By and large, we were not interfered with in any way, shape or form, in doing our budgets in our respective subcommittees. We’ve got a good process, and I’m very proud of that product,” Latvala said.

“I think it would be unfortunate to let that product be overshadowed by one or two bills that were added to the conference as conforming bills.”

He reminded the senators of the “regular, full-scale throw-down on conforming bills” during the 2011 session.

This year, lead conferees agreed that the House could bring its preK-12 priorities and the Senate its higher education initiatives into conforming legislation.

“Perhaps they got a little carried a way with their bill. And perhaps it went a little further than a bill should have gone in the conforming bill process,” Latvala said.

“For that, I take the responsibility. I could have cut that off at any time. I could have cut it off in the beginning by going to the president and saying it just wasn’t what we needed to do. I didn’t do that, in trying to respect the two-house system that is so important to governing our state.”

He apologized if the process was abused.

“But today … we have a package of bills. And that package of bills is an entirety,” Latvala said. “If we don’t proceed to adopt all those bills, then we basically have nothing.”

That would force a special session in which lawmakers come back and “we redo our job,” he said.

Joe Negron starts edging toward the exit

Senate President Joe Negron said Friday that the Senate was waiting to vote on two bills and then would retire for the evening.

Those bills, he said, were the joint resolution extending the session past its midnight expiration time, into Monday, so the House and Senate could debate an $83 billion compromise budget and conforming bills.

The other was SB436, by Sen. Dennis Baxley, to allow students to express religious beliefs in class assignments, profess faith via clothing and jewelry pray, and engage in religious activities before, during, and after the school day.

Essentially, religious activities would be treated the same way as similar secular activity.

Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala wanted to know whether that meant none of the other major legislation still pending was dead.

“I don’t think we should assume anything until the conclusion of business today,” Negron replied.

Meanwhile, the Senate was standing in recess.

Conference committees complete work on budget conforming bills

The House and Senate staged one last conference committee Friday, agreeing on budget conforming bills containing sweeping policy changes, on public schools, higher education, economic incentives programs and more.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron did the honors personally, leading delegations to a committee room to present and consider offers on the conforming bills.

The $83 billion state budget landed on members desks in the House and Senate at 2:43 p.m., allowing them three days to study the document before an up-or-down vote scheduled for Monday. The conforming bills don’t require that long a wait.

A conference committee finally signed off on the final language on Thursday — too late to allow a vote before the regular session’s scheduled end on Friday, forcing the Legislature to extend into next week.

The bills agreed upon Friday encompass the House’s Schools of Hope charter school and Best and Brightest teacher bonus expansion; governance of university support organizations; new limits on Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida; and more.

The bills are HB 5501, HB 5601, HB 7069, CS/CS/SB 374, and SB 2506.

“I think that’s going to go down as one of the greatest K12 bills in the history of Florida,” Corcoran told reporters.

He and Negron both defended the conference process — reaching agreements on key provisions privately, then meeting in public to present their offers, with no time for members of the public to scrutinize the details.

“These things have been going on for years. I think they went on last year. I think they went on the year before that. They went on the year before that,” Corcoran said.

What’s different is that “there was not one single late-night addition in conference to the budget,” he said.

Additionally, the Senate held Appropriations Committee hearings on bills it knew the House wanted to pass, Negron said.

“These are issues that have been part of the legislative process for a long time,” he said.

House moves toward Senate on must-pass workers’ compensation legislation

The Senate refused Friday to move toward the House position on workers’ compensation reform, but the House gave ground on how much to pay attorneys handling claims appeals.

Senate bill sponsor Rob Bradley offered an amendment that would have split the difference between the two chambers by paying attorneys as much as $200 per hour, but the Senate chose on a voice vote to retain his original language — $250.

The Senate voted, 21-16, to send the bill to the House

The House lobbed the bill back after voting to raise the maximum fee to $180, up from its previous position of $150.

The drama came on the last day of the Legislature’s regular session, on legislation considered must-pass by the insurance industry and business lobbies.

Bradley argued his amendment took a middle position between intractable antagonists — those lobbies and the trial bar.

“All the special interests are against it,” he said.

“For some people, that is a bad thing. I suggest to you that that’s a sign that us as public policymakers are not being dictated to by any one special interest or another. And that we’ve actually achieved, consistent with the spirit of the workers’ compensation law and its design, a balance.

“Because I promise you, if one side was doing cartwheels and the other one wasn’t … it would not reflect that grand bargain and balance that I’m describing.”

The bill is CS/HB 7085.

Sen. Gary Farmer, who offered the substitute amendment that prevailed on the fee issue, argued the original version was “more balanced and fair to all parties.”

Additionally, the Senate would require carriers to compete on rates, rather than submit rate proposals collectively through the National Council on Compensation Insurance, or NCCI.

The House version would allow carriers to depart from the common rate by 5 percent, up or down.

“It makes the rate-making process more transparent, so businesses can get, hopefully, better rates,” Farmer said.

In either case, departures from a statutory fee schedule would apply only when justified by a case’s difficulty.

Bradley’s amendment would have required the Department of Financial Services to engage an independent consultant to study the system for reimbursing medical providers through the workers’ compensation system.

The House bill would tie reimbursement to medical providers to Medicare rates, rather than through the existing fee for service system.

Bradley said that would cost providers as much as $300 million.

Both bills would extend temporary disability benefits from the existing 104 weeks to 260 — but the House bill would provide an additional 26 weeks if the worker hasn’t reached maximum medical improvement and cannot return to the job site.

The legislation is a response to Florida Supreme Court rulings last year striking limits on attorney fees and temporary disability payments.

Insurance carriers and their business allies, who consider workers’ compensation reforms must-pass legislation this year, blame those rulings for increasing costs to insurers and employers.

The Office of Insurance Regulation, in response to the rulings, approved a 14.5 percent increase in premiums that began to take effect in December. NCCI blames litigation cost for fully 10 percent of that increase.

Bill Montford complains about school spending during scholarships debate

The Senate’s leading education expert unloaded Friday on spending levels for schools contemplated in the Legislature’s compromise $83 billion state budget.

During debate on extending Florida’s corporate tax exemption scholarship program, Sen. Bill Montford complained that base spending per student would decline in the public schools next fiscal year, notwithstanding a modest increase in the school budget.

“In the budget that you’re going to look at Monday,” he said, “the basic student allocation next year will be $27 less than it is this year.”

The budget would grow by $241 million, “but we also have 24,000 more students. You figure that out,” Montford said.

Much of the increase in overall spending would be consumed by pension investments, Montford, a former school principal and superintendent from Tallahassee, continued.

The schools will serve 540,000 students with disabilities. “And we’re spending $50 million less than we did 10 years ago,” Montford said.

“The Safe Schools allocation is $11 million less than it was 10 years ago. The transportation allocation is $45 million less than it was 10 years ago. The instructional material allocation is $36 million less than it was 10 years ago.”

Montford said he would vote for the scholarship programs under debate, because he believes in school choice.

“But the parent who chooses to leave their child in a traditional public school, that child should have the same opportunities as those who choose to go to a nontraditional public school,” he said.

The Senate ultimately approved the scholarships bill, 27-11, and returned it to the House.

The bill would expand both Florida’s corporate tax exemption scholarships and availability of the Gardiner Scholarship program for students with disabilities.

The senators switched out their own version of the Gardiner legislation earlier in the week for the House version, CS/CS/CS/HB 15, which contained the corporate tax exemption scholarship language.

The bill extends Gardiner scholarships to students suffering anaphylaxis; deafness; visual impairments; dual sensory impairments; and “rare diseases which affect patient populations of fewer than 200,000.”

It bumps the amount available to students in the corporate exemption program as they age. Sen. Denise Grimsley said costs tend to rise as students advance from elementary to middle to high school.

“I don’t believe that any of these changes are going to attract more students to the program,” she said in debate earlier in the week.

The program provides low-income students with tuition for private schools or transportation to public schools.

Democrat Daphne Campbell supported the program, saying two-thirds of the beneficiaries are African-American or Hispanic, and more than half live in single-parent homes.

“These students struggled but now they are succeeding,” Campbell said.

“This should not be a partisan issue. The House passed this bill off the floor with unanimous support — every Republican and every Democrat,” she said.

Other Democrats argued the program diverts tax dollars that could go to public schools. Victor Torres said the bill would increase tax breaks by 25 percent each year — doubling it in four years.

“We do not increase finding for public education at this rate,” Torres said.

Sen. Debbie Mayfield sympathized, but argued: “The money should follow the child.”

“I understand that public education needs more money,” Mayfield said. “But I have always believed it is the parent’s choice where the child goes to school.”

“Why would we ask people to languish in situations where they have no choice, when freedom works?” said Sen. Dennis Baxley. “And we know that every one of these schools will do better when everyone’s there because of choice.”

And Kelli Stargel noted that the transportation provision allows students to transfer to better public schools.

“It’s not a fight between public and private,” she said. “It’s dollars that we appropriate from the state of Florida to

Senate bows to minimum-mandatory sentencing for fentanyl traffickers

The Senate changed its mind Friday and accepted mandatory-minimum prison sentences in a bill cracking down on synthetic opioids, including fentanyl and carfentanil.

Senators had stripped the provision earlier in the week, but the House refused to abandon mandatory sentences and sent the bill back.

Senate President Joe Negron initially ruled that Sen. Greg Steube’s motion to rescind the amendment had failed on a voice vote.

But enough members insisted on a recorded vote, which went 20-18 to back down.

The Senate then voted, 31-7, to send the bill to the governor.

Senate Democrats had made it clear during their final caucus of the regular session that they viewed the matter as a test of mandatory-minimum sentencing, which many of them oppose as restricting judge’s authority to consider special cases.

But the feeling wasn’t unanimous. Sen. Darryl Rouson said he usually opposes minimum-mandatory sentencing, but that the opioid crisis presents a special emergency.

“Let’s go home sending a strong message,” he said. He urged support for addiction treatment, “but let’s deal harshly with those who profit off the addictions and illnesses of others.”

Sen. Randolph Bracy, the amendment’s sponsor, argued that the amendment would still permit long sentences for drug traffickers who deserve it.

“It just allows the judge in extreme cases to say, ‘This person does not deserve 25 years.’ ”

Steube insisted the Senate needed to act against dangerous drugs that are killing 10 people each day in Florida when mixed with other drugs, including heroin. He argued that the mandatory sentences wouldn’t apply to most simple users.

“We’re not talking about the kid making a mistake. We’re talking about the trafficker who is mixing and cutting this stuff with heroin and killing people in our state every day.”

HB 477 targets fentanyl and related substances that, when administered by themselves or in combination with other drugs, can prove deadly, for tougher sentencing. For example, it would add fentanyl and derivatives to the list of Schedule I drugs and provides that trafficking in them resulting in death constitutes murder.

Possession of less than 14 grams of fentanyl would bring at least three years in prison; up to 28 grams would bring 15; and and 28 or more grams would bring 25.

Member projects make it into state budget at the last possible moment

It was better late than never Thursday for five member projects inserted at the very last minute into the compromise $83 billion state budget.

The House and Senate each had items to stuff into the budget during the last conference committee meeting of the evening.

Actually, one of the items won funding earlier in the day — $300,000 for the “ARC Broward Safe Roof Project.” But the Senate added another $90,000 later.

They’re called supplemental funding initiatives, and each side save little pots of money to spend at the last minute on these member projects. Senate President Joe Negron said Wednesday night that senators were lobbying him on their projects even then.

The Senate added 75 projects to the budget during the afternoon. There was no bottom line, but the most expensive was $3.2 million to fix up a building at Florida Southwestern State College.

The House added 14 items during the afternoon. It did provide a total: nearly $10.4 million. They included the Florida Southwestern project.

The latecomers for the Senate were $500,000 for a rodeo facility in Arcadia; that same amount for a canal project in Florida City; and $334,770 for the Little Havana Activity and Nutrition Centers.

The House’s last adds were the Urban League money and $390,000 for an “ARC Broward Safe Roof Project.”

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